"A man finds room in the few square inches of his face for the traits of all his ancestors; for the expression of all his history, and his wants." ~Ralph Waldo Emerson, Conduct of Life
Reading the news about Chrissy Steltz, an Oregon woman who lost her eyes and nose 11 years ago in a shotgun accident, getting a new face is nothing less than astonishing. Not only because of the prosthetic technology that enabled her physical transformation, but because of her indomitable spirit, with which no amount of plastic surgery can rival.
Equally astonishing is the fact that her $60,000 to $80,000 facial prosthesis is considered "cosmetic" and was denied by health insurance. How can one compare the loss of one's face with an obscene multi-billion dollar industry? I'm not talking about aesthetics. I'm talking about the basic elements by which, like it or not, we are judged. Eyes. A nose. A smile. I'm talking about quality of life and isolation, social or self-imposed.
We remain, at the cellular level, tribal primates who despite our claims of enlightenment, judge at first glance the viability and intentions of mates and rivals by their physical features and facial expressions. Newborns, whose undeveloped visual acuity is somewhere between 20/200 and 20/400, are programmed to fixate on faces, fuzzy as they may be. This is Chrissy's drive for a face neither she nor her blind partner will ever see–a face her young daughter can bond with, in place of the black mask Chrissy has been wearing.
If you object that appearances matter, you are preaching to the wrong choir. My time caring for children with burns and congenital malformations has trained me to view such conditions with clinical detachment. In the process I have met children and families with unimaginable strength, resilience, love and yes, beauty.
Which brings me back to Chrissy. I thought at first to explore the will behind Chrissy and survivors like Iraq veteran Ty Ziegel and chimpanzee attack victim Charla Nash. I doubt any of them would call themselves heroes, though many of us, lacking a better word, would like to label them. But I found myself, like so many others, lacking.
And this perhaps, is at the root of what stirs us in the stories of not only Chrissy, but any survivor of war, of cancer, of tragedy: under similar circumstances, would we be lacking?
On the history of facial prosthetics: Smithsonian examines the Faces of War.
Amid the horrors of World War I, a corps of artists brought hope to soldiers disfigured in the trenches...
Australian performance artist Stelarc's implantation of ear into his arm: "Extra Ear on Arm 2006-2007, as an exploration of alternative anatomical structures, which at one stage had him seriously contemplating the surgical removal of his ear and its relocation elsewhere on his body or face. Possible sites were the side of his forehead or forearm. But his medical friends — a group of doctors and artists willing to perform unnecessary surgery in the name of art — talked him out of it because the ear would probably die."
©2010 Tammy Yee